By the Light of the Midnight Sun
This road leads to some fairly wild and remote country. It also passes through active gold mining areas where owners are often adamant about their private property signs. Specific regions of gold-mining activity include the settlement of Livengood (no services available) at 71 miles from the road's start at Fox, and Eureka, 131 miles from Fox.
There are few services available at any point on this road except at the start and finish. Travelers should therefore start this trek with a full gas tank.
These liabilities aside, this is a beautiful drive through the heart of interior Alaska. Most of the route is forested with scraggly black spruce and stands of birch. There is some fairly open country at roadside about 100 miles into the route, country heavy with extensive fields of blueberries.
At the start of the road is a picnic area by Fox Spring. Area residents have long cherished the sparkling water that comes from the ground year-round at this point. Many make regular trips to the spring for drinking water, ignoring the relatively pure water delivered to the taps in their homes. It's well worth a stop to fill water bottles or just for tasting the water.
From the spring, it's little more than 4 miles to Hilltop, a cafe and gas station on the left side. This is a favorite stop for Haul Road truckers, and at any given time there will likely be several rigs parked out front. This is also the last gas available before reaching Manley at the end of the road, some 147 miles distant.
The first 73 miles of this road is an extension of the Haul Road, and truck traffic can be particularly heavy at times. Be exceedingly careful during dry periods, because these 18-wheelers kick up blinding clouds of dust. The majority of the northbound truckers turn off on the Dalton Highway 73 miles from Fox, leaving the second half of the Elliott Highway relatively free of traffic.
Prior to reaching the Dalton Highway junction, the Elliott crosses both the Chatanika and Tolovana rivers. There's a splendid campground and picnic area next to the Chatanika River bridge (11 miles). Fishing here is mediocre at best, except for a few brief days just after breakup when grayling are moving upstream to summer spawning and feeding areas.
Fishing Along the Elliott
The Tolovana River, 57 miles from Fox, offers slightly better fishing for small grayling, as well as opportunities to catch northern pike. Pike are thrilling sport, particularly on light tackle. Minto Flats, the extensive region of lakes and marsh to the south of the road, regularly produces pike in excess of 30 pounds. River fish will likely be smaller. As a general rule, it takes big water to hold big pike.
Minto Flats is also the favorite region for interior waterfowlers. The best way to get there is usually a 15-minute charter flight from Fairbanks, though it can be reached by road from the village of Minto, accessed by an 11-mile side road that begins at mile 110 of the Elliott Highway. Minto and the surrounding lands are private property belonging to the Native village. Strangers are often looked over critically by local residents. Should you elect to drive to Minto and put a boat into the flats to sample the waterfowl hunting or the fishing, be careful out on the water. Native fishermen set gill nets throughout the area, and these are sometimes difficult to spot as you speed through the lakes or marshes in a power boat. A line of cork floats, usually white, just barely breaking the surface of the water, is the only indication of a gill net.
Beyond the Dalton Highway junction, this is a fairly narrow road and not nearly as well maintained. Though it is open year-round and maintained by the state of Alaska, parts of it can be exceedingly rough.
Probably the best fishing available along the entire road is at Baker Creek, 137 miles from Fox. All summer long this creek is capable of producing grayling to 20 inches in length.
Virtually no other fish symbolizes the purity of arctic waters more than the grayling. It's generally found in only the clearest streams. Fresh from the water, there is no finer eating available. The flesh is white, delicate, and smells faintly of thyme. When first pulled from the water the skin shimmers in rich purple hues, though these colors recede to a dark gray with the death of the fish. Prime grayling lures are small silver spinners and various small flies.
As you approach Manley, a side road leads 16 miles to a former mining area known as Tofty. Though there is still some mining around Tofty, the situation is more congenial. Visitors should scrupulously obey private property signs, however. Inquire locally in Manley before driving to Tofty.
Just prior to entering Manley, Manley Hot Springs is to the right. The lodge there offers a great hot springs pool and tours to fish camps, gold mines, and sled-dog kennels.
Four-time Iditarod champion Susan Butcher lives and maintains her kennel on the outskirts of Manley. She dominated this 1,049-mile endurance race from Anchorage to Nome in the late 1980s. Susan's arch-rival on the Iditarod Trail, and the Iditarod's only other four-time champion, used to live and train his teams near Manley. Rick Swensen, however, moved closer to Fairbanks several years ago, leaving Susan as the undisputed champion musher in the Manley area. It's probably best not to drop in on Susan unannounced, but local inquiries in Manley should produce information on whether or not she or her husband Dave Monsen are available and willing to provide kennel tours.
Manley itself rests on the banks of the Tanana River, with about 90 full-time residents. Residents here live a largely self-sufficient lifestyle with few of the amenities most other people take for granted. Some of the vegetable and berry gardens surrounding well-kept homes must be seen to be believed. It takes a fair amount of work to produce these kinds of crops in interior Alaska.
For a real taste of the past, stop in at the Manley Roadhouse, a great place to meet the local citizensmostly miners, trappers, and mushersover refreshments. Try the blueberry pie, a house specialty, for a real treat.
Fishermen will find pike up to 3 feet long in the Manley Hot Springs Slough. A campground on the slough offers a boat launch for those who have the equipment to get away from the immediate shoreline. Northern pike prefer big pieces of bright hardwarered-and-white or black-and-white spoons being favorites. Best to use a steel leader in front of the lure, as these fish have mouths filled with jagged teeth that make short work of most fishing line. Fly fishermen will find that big, bright streamers will take pike. On a fly rod, catching a pike best correlates to that old clichi about having a tiger by the tail.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication